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ART REVIEW : Summer Scene With Message of Narcissism

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The art world, like all worlds, runs on cliches. That’s why it’s so easily understood and so impenetrable at the same time.

What can you do with an obtuse critic, mercenary dealer or unimaginative collector? Especially if you are a firebrand artist invited to participate in a big show, you can’t sleep at night because a gimmicky idea threatens to seduce you, and the fan is broken in your studio-cum-apartment?

Los Angeles-based artist Robert Gunderman is obsessed with such cliches, and he makes art that plays into them so tightly you’re never sure where he stands in relation to them. This isn’t terrifying work, but it does ensure that you are at the very least nervous in its presence.

“Why Aren’t Ill-Mannered Dealers (Directors) Beaten, or Even Killed?” is the title Gunderman gave to a 1992 work performed on the roof of a now-defunct Santa Monica gallery. The artist, a former U.S. Army small-arms specialist, threatened to shoot the director of the likewise now-defunct gallery opposite. The police arrived and issued a restraining order.

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If “Why Aren’t Ill-Mannered Dealers” illustrated the cliche of art as guerrilla activity and/or psychic survival tactic, Gunderman’s new piece at Dan Bernier Gallery illustrates its inverse: art as distraction and leisure time activity.

Gunderman has placed in the gallery space a large swimming pool, a stack of white towels and a modest piece of Astroturf. On the wall he has painted a square sun. The whole is a pleasingly Minimalist composition, all geometric shapes and primary colors, which pokes slyly at our well-trained expectations for a lightweight summer show.

Yet the seductive surface of the pool conjures the issue of narcissism, one of the art world’s current addictions. The art world is also addicted to Dadaist found objects and, in those terms, the pool is merely an oversized Duchampian urinal, coyly inviting us to dive in.

That the visitor is indeed welcome to dive in is not the point, however, but beside it. This installation is no celebration of art’s democratic spirit, but a knowing evocation of its sharply circumscribed system, and of the artist’s limited capacity for movement.

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* Dan Bernier Gallery, 3026 1/2 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 265-4882, through Aug . 19. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Wielding Weapons: Daniel Brandely’s site-specific installation at Cirrus Gallery is barely that--and a big disappointment on other counts as well. A suite of panel paintings depict a single, harrowing scene filled with knife-wielding personifications of Death, inspired by Holbein’s “Dance of Death,” and dancing masked figures based on stock characters from the commedia dell’arte.

Accompanying these images is a sculpture in which toy weapons are affixed to a succession of metal brackets, each bearing a single letter that together spell out the word Alameda --the name of the street on which the gallery is located and thus, the site-specific aspect of the installation.

While Brandely’s wax-crayon technique is interesting (he achieves a neat, clotted effect and a variety of tones), the images themselves make little sense. They work neither as Postmodern pastiches nor as imaginative confabulations. As for the sculpture, it lacks any context and is completely nonsensical.

Upstairs, a small installation of earlier work seems as if it were made by someone else. These are bits of tiny plastic toys, glued together to create incongruous tableaux with a high camp flavor: a robot getting ready to barbecue, a red hippo facing off a green rhino, a constellation of space-age mutants who seem to have come straight out of Andre Masson’s Surrealist classic “Anatomy of My Universe.”

Also included upstairs are two older pieces in which Brandely has cast biscuits and cookies embossed with militaristic insignias, fleurs-de-lis or coats-of-arms. These are quite lovely, and evoke the pomposity of organized acts of violence far more eloquently than the grand-scale but feeble works that are this show’s pretense.

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* Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., (213) 680-3473, through Aug . 31. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Stately: At Ace Contemporary Exhibitions, British sculptor Tony Cragg precariously piles on the floor or insouciantly leans against the wall 48 plates of heavy-gauge steel, each cut into the idiosyncratic shape of one of the continental United States.

States are, of course, abstract entities--coded representations of three-dimensional spaces. Each symbolizes a political, economic and social order that exist at a specific moment in time. Each crystallizes a certain consensus, yet its contours are not transcendent, merely conventional.

Cragg is interested in the multiple levels of information these abstract forms betray, specifically the emotions that forged their strangely crenelated edges, razor-sharp lines, injudicious crevasses and asymmetrical forms. Some feel pitifully tiny, some look as if their frontiers had been tormented and others possess bodies that are absurdly bloated. Cragg wants to suggest that no border is (or could be) entirely arbitrary, while insisting upon the border’s terrible power to contain or exclude.

Among the more compelling aspects of this work is the dialectic it stages between part and whole. A familiar trope within Modernist sculpture, it here becomes deeply politicized and uncommonly urgent. In this show Cragg balances not only impassive pieces of steel, but formal and conceptual agendas.

* Ace Contemporary Exhibitions, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 935-9988, through Oct . 31. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Body Art: Thanks to the magic of video, Angelenos have already been treated to the inglorious sight of Keith Boadwee producing lush abstractions with watercolor enemas. Now, Patricia Correia Gallery hosts Danish artist Peter Bonde, who makes his work by putting a plastic bag over his head and “tonguing” paint onto a surface, vomiting directly onto a dark canvas or sucking up black acrylic from a bottle and spitting it against a sparkling white backdrop.

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As with Boadwee, the results reveal nothing of the process, so it is necessary that it be documented. Thus the gallery is filled with a series of vinyl banners depicting Bonde as he creates his visceral, scatological and implicitly obscene artwork.

With a paint-smeared bag over his head, Bonde resembles a slobbery executioner. Or, stylishly unshaven, he spits paint out of his mouth, very delicately, as if it were not quite to his liking. And what of the paintings themselves, the passive objects of his insistently physical interventions? They are the problem--or at least one of the problems, for they make very little impression.

Unlike Boadwee’s works, which convincingly masquerade as second-generation Abstract Expressionism, thus affording the artist the ability to critique certain Modernist truisms, Bonde’s paintings simply look messy. If this were a commentary on art’s potential ordinariness, it might be minimally compelling. But that isn’t Bonde’s point. He wants to champion the resplendent beauty of the mundane--another thing entirely.

In this context, a smeary-green monochrome with the word yummy scratched onto its surface four times doesn’t read clearly. It might be ironic, it might not. It is certainly naughty, but we’ve had so much of that lately that it’s hardly enough.

* Patricia Correia Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-1760, through Aug . 20. Closed Sunday and Monday.


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